Many of you probably watched the Kimberly Potter sentencing on Friday or heard about it. Her trial, and the trial of Derek Chauvin last year have provided rare windows for the general public into how real trials work, not the fictional kind we see on TV shows. Sentencing is the most important stage of a criminal proceeding, it is where the judge decides whether a guilty person will go to jail or prison, and, if so, how much time they will spend there, along with other conditions. In most cases the sentence is agreed upon as part of a plea bargain between the prosecution and the defense. In those situations, there is not much drama at sentencing as the judge, except in rare cases, will follow the agreement. In some cases, the prosecution and defense agree on a plea, what charge the defendant will plead to, but do not agree on the sentence. In those cases, and, in the cases like Ms. Potters where a defendant is found guilty after a trial, there is a contested sentencing where both sides present argument and evidence as to the appropriate sentence. This is not a time to re-argue guilt or innocence, guilt has been found either by a plea, or by a jury after trial. Both sides can provide statements of family members, friends, or others connected with the victim, or defendant in order to show the judge why the sentence should be more lenient, or more severe. In Ms. Potter’s trial statements of her family were submitted, along with statements from the family of Duante Wright, the young man the jury found her guilty of killing. Minnesota has guidelines for sentences which judges usually follow but are not required to; a judge can deviate from the guidelines to be more severe, or more lenient if they provide valid reasons for doing so.
While most people focus on the trial, and the always exciting reading of the verdict, what happens at sentencing is equally important. While the jury found Ms. Potter guilty, the sentence she received from the judge was much less than what people convicted of what she did usually receive, the judge made a major downward deviation from the guideline sentence.